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October 15, 2009 10:15 AM   Subscribe

What is the purpose of sign language interpretation at the opera?

A few months back, Mr. Stuck and I went to see a performance of Madame Butterfly at the English National Opera. As luck would have it, the performance that night was accompanied by live sign-language interpretation. The interpreter stood in front of the proscenium arch, dressed in black and discreetly lit by a dimmed spotlight, and signed along with the libretto. I do not understand sign language but her signing, which at times involved her whole upper body, seemed beautiful and expressive.

My only question is... why use sign language interpretation at all? The opera, although sung in English, was accompanied by English surtitles on a screen above the stage, so the words being sung were already clearly readable. And presumably the interpreter was using British Sign Language, which would be intelligible only to deaf or hearing-impaired visitors from the UK. Was she there for the benefit of people who are fluent in BSL but not English?

I was fascinated by how much emotion the interpreter put into her signing -- more, at times, than Butterfly put into her singing. I would be glad to hear anyone's experience of what live sign-language interpretation adds to a performance that isn't already available from a text libretto or surtitles.
posted by stuck on an island to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Also, why at the opera? Do deaf people go to the opera, and if so, why?
posted by musofire at 10:32 AM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A couple of responses -- First, there are lots of people who are deaf and who sign and who are not fluent in written English. Second, some performance spaces use sign language as a matter of course, as part of the performance and to make the performance more accessible to deaf people who may be in attendance. Even more so if there is any filming going on, to accommodate future viewers. Third, related to second, where no video recording going on, there are some sign language interpreters who dislike the second point, because they feel that it is weird and wasteful and appearances-over-reality and disrespectful-to-the-efforts-of-interpreters to provide sign language interpreting in a setting without any deaf people.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:36 AM on October 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

(I meant to explain -- deaf people typically request sign language interpreting ahead of time, so usually there is knowledge ahead of time if there are any deaf people present. Some reason, well, why make deaf people make a special request? But (probably) because sign language is labor intensive and expensive, it is still the norm for there to be a specific request.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:39 AM on October 15, 2009

Also, why at the opera? Do deaf people go to the opera, and if so, why?

Because the stories are literature and perhaps also because many people (opera lovers and non-opera lovers) like to get dressed up and enjoy this type of event with friends and family?
posted by applemeat at 10:41 AM on October 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Opera is light, sound, color, story, costumes, song, fanfare, see-and-be-seen, intermission, wine, evening, dresses, suits, friends, etc., right? Many humans including deaf humans enjoy such events (not me so much). Many deaf people have some hearing. Most deaf people are sighted. Deaf people can be opera buffs, a deaf person can be married to an opera buff, etc.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:43 AM on October 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't know sign language but I am hearing-impaired. I go the theater, not the opera. Surtitles are great, but it's hard to focus on reading AND watching the action at the same time (try it!). I would think it'd be easier to focus on an interpreter who is closer to the action, especially if you're more fluent in sign language than written English. In fact, given that the interpreter has body language that text lacks, you're getting MORE information.
posted by desjardins at 10:50 AM on October 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Deaf people can also follow music through feeling vibrations. However, opera tells a story, and the music is part of that. They have the visuals, but the lyrics accompany it.
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:55 AM on October 15, 2009

Many -- I think it's actually most -- deaf people are not completely deaf, but have some hearing to some extent. Many listen to music. And even those who are completely deaf, scuh as Helen Keller, appreciate music for it's rhythmic quality, and tones can be sensed through touch. I would think opera, which is often particularly loud and expressive, would be a natural for deaf people.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:55 AM on October 15, 2009

I do not understand sign language but her signing, which at times involved her whole upper body, seemed beautiful and expressive.

Isn't that a good enough reason? I went to a concert last year with an ASL interpreter, and watching her was pretty much the best part of the show.
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:29 AM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm nthing ClaudiaCenter here. Many deaf people cannot read or write english. Sign language isn't just American English spelled out with your body. It's a whole different language. Like Spanish or French.
posted by royalsong at 11:32 AM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My only question is... why use sign language interpretation at all? The opera, although sung in English, was accompanied by English surtitles on a screen above the stage, so the words being sung were already clearly readable. And presumably the interpreter was using British Sign Language, which would be intelligible only to deaf or hearing-impaired visitors from the UK. Was she there for the benefit of people who are fluent in BSL but not English?

Sign languages are languages, so the reason BSL was provided is because some people want to enjoy the opera with the ease and fluency that comes through their first language. I don't sign, but I'm pretty sure that deaf people don't "read" sign language like words, but speak and listen like hearing people do - naturally and effortlessly - just with different parts of the body. Words and writing are just another layer of communication between their language (in this case English) and meaning, which require concentration and thus likely to become tiring after a while.
posted by Sova at 11:42 AM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do deaf people go to the opera, and if so, why?

Deaf people probably have a similar variety reasons for going to the opera as they do to other musical and theatrical performances. I have not been to the opera but I suspect deaf people are about as prevalent there as anywhere else.

If the audio was the only thing hearing people got out of live performance, one could just stay home and listen to a CD. Even in your question you mention attending with another person and noticing lighting and stage details, things that can be enjoyed without hearing.
posted by yohko at 11:46 AM on October 15, 2009

Here's what Helen Keller had to say about going to the theater. (Remember, she is both deaf and blind).
Another pleasure, which comes more rarely than the others, is going to the theatre. I enjoy having a play described to me while it is being acted on the stage far more than reading it, because then it seems as if I were living in the midst of stirring events. It has been my privilege to meet a few great actors and actresses who have the power of so bewitching you that you forget time and place and live again in the romantic past. I have been permitted to touch the face and costume of Miss Ellen Terry as she impersonated our ideal of a queen; and there was about her that divinity that hedges sublimest woe. Beside her stood Sir Henry Irving, wearing the symbols of kingship; and there was majesty of intellect in his every gesture and attitude and the royalty that subdues and overcomes in every line of his sensitive face. In the king's face, which he wore as a mask, there was a remoteness and inaccessibility of grief which I shall never forget.

I also know Mr. Jefferson. I am proud to count him among my friends. I go to see him whenever I happen to be where he is acting. The first time I saw him act was while at school in New York. He played "Rip Van Winkle." I had often read the story, but I had never felt the charm of Rip's slow, quaint, kind ways as I did in the play. Mr. Jefferson's beautiful, pathetic representation quite carried me away with delight. I have a picture of old Rip in my fingers which they will never lose. After the play Miss Sullivan took me to see him behind the scenes, and I felt of his curious garb and his flowing hair and beard. Mr. Jefferson let me touch his face so that I could imagine how he looked on waking from that strange sleep of twenty years, and he showed me how poor old Rip staggered to his feet.
I remember well the first time I went to the theatre. It was twelve years ago. Elsie Leslie, the little actress, was in Boston, and Miss Sullivan took me to see her in "The Prince and the Pauper." I shall never forget the ripple of alternating joy and woe that ran through that beautiful little play, or the wonderful child who acted it. After the play I was permitted to go behind the scenes and meet her in her royal costume. It would have been hard to find a lovelier or more lovable child than Elsie, as she stood with a cloud of golden hair floating over her shoulders, smiling brightly, showing no signs of shyness or fatigue, though she had been playing to an immense audience.
From The Story of My Life.
posted by alms at 11:51 AM on October 15, 2009 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Sign languages are languages (Sova)

This. British English and BSL are not interchangeable. Likewise American English and ASL. Sign languages are structured very differently from spoken language. Rather than an SOV (subject-object-verb) structure, ASL syntax has a topic-comment structure (warning, long quote ahead):
In general, ASL sentences follow a "TOPIC" "COMMENT" arrangement. Another name for a "comment" is the term "predicate." A predicate is simply a word or phrase that says something about a topic. In general, the subject of a sentence is your topic. The predicate is your comment.

When discussing past and future events we tend to establish a time-frame before the rest of the sentence.

That gives us a "TIME" "TOPIC" "COMMENT" structure.

For example:

[The "Pro1" term means to use a first-person pronoun. A first-person pronoun means "I or me." So "Pro1" is just a fancy way of saying "I" or "me." In the above example you would simply point at yourself to mean "Pro1."]

Quite often ASL signers will use the object of their sentence as the topic. For example:

[Note: The eyebrows are raised and the head is tilted slightly forward during the "MY CAR" portion of that sentence.]

Using the object of your sentence as the topic of the sentence is called "topicalization." In this example, "my car" becomes the subject instead of "me." The fact that "I washed it last week" becomes the comment.

There is more than one sign for "WASH." Washing a car or a window is different from the generic sign for "WASH" to wash-in-a-machine, or to wash a dish. The real issue here isn't so much the order of the words as it is choosing appropriate ASL sign to accurately represent the concept.

There are a number of "correct" variations of word order in American Sign Language (Humphries & Padden, 1992).

For example you could say: "I STUDENT I" or, "I STUDENT" or even, "STUDENT I."
Note: The concept of "I" in these sentences is done by pointing an index finger at your chest and/or touching the tip of the index finger to your chest.

You could sign:


All of the above statements are "ASL."

I notice that some "ASL" teachers tend to become fanatical about encouraging their students to get as far away from English word order as possible and thus focus on the version "FROM U-T-A-H I."

It has been my experience during my various travels across the U.S. that the versions "I STUDENT" and "I FROM U-T-A-H" work great and are less confusing to the majority of people.

The version "FROM UTAH I" tends to be used only after the subject of the conversation has been introduced. For example, suppose two people are talking about a man named Bob. If one of them says he "thought Bob was from California" and I happen to know he is really from Utah, I would sign "FROM UTAH HE" while nodding.

ASL doesn't use "state of being" verbs.

The English sentence "I am a teacher" could be signed: "TEACHER ME " or even "ME TEACHER" while nodding the head. Since both are correct, my suggestion is to choose the second version.
So, how does this apply to the opera, specifically? A sign language interpreter at an opera is providing a fundamentally different source of information than the surtitles are. The original text
O a me, sceso dal trono
dell'alto Paradiso,
guarda ben fiso, fiso
di tua madre la faccia!
that is translated into English as
My son, sent to me from Heaven,
Straight from the throne of glory,
Take one last and careful look
At your poor mother's face!
might be translated into ASL in a number of different ways depending on whether the interpreter understands the son or the face of the mother to be the topic (topic and subject are not the same thing; an object can also be a topic).* Sign languages aren't limited to the hands. An ASL sentence gains its meaning from the signs used, where they are signed within the space in front of the signer, how they move through that space, the signer's facial expression, and the context within the larger signed conversation.

*I'm not an ASL speaker, though I've studied its syntax; don't take this at all as definitive.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:07 PM on October 15, 2009 [63 favorites]

The ENO works like other cultural institutions in the UK, they schedule a few BSL interpreted performances into a run, rather than it being something that you request (just to clarify what ClaudiaCenter said above).
posted by Helga-woo at 1:37 PM on October 15, 2009

One would assume that the sign language more accurately conveyed the emotions that the surtitles could only hint at. The sign language is performance, the surtitles, an aid to understanding the words.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:38 PM on October 15, 2009

In the three years I've worked for an opera company, I've never seen one of our performances interpreted in ASL. Which is too bad because, as you've seen, sign language interpretation of music is an art of it's own.

An old friend of mine is a sign language interpreter, and one of her assignments in interpreter school was to interpret a piece of popular music. When she does it seriously, it's amazingly beautiful. When she does it comically, I've literally fallen over laughing.

(I had no idea that some people fluent in ASL or BSL or *SL aren't fluent in written language. You learn something every day.)
posted by mollymayhem at 2:57 PM on October 15, 2009

Also, why at the opera? Do deaf people go to the opera, and if so, why?

I grew up with a kid that was deaf. As in, he wasn't a friend, but our parents knew each other well enough that we interacted. That kid loved music. He could feel it on his skin, and I was told much much later that sound can also do bone conduction and basically you can "hear" with your body. Don't know if that's true, but is what I was told.

And along these lines, I went to a movie with a blind person once. I, as quietly as I could, described what was going on (that's what I had been asked to do). So guy still turned around and was going to say something, then he realized what was going on and turned back forward. I was slightly proud of humanity at that point.

I also once watched a taped lecture of Dr. Ruth that was signed. Once she figured out that the signs for certain words were funny to watch she started going though a list of them. I also remember her saying, "How disappointing" (or something along these lines) when the words "masturbation" was mentioned, since the gesture was obviously how a man would do it. So she says, "FEMALE masturbation." And the gesture for woman, then the previous make masturbation gesture.
posted by cjorgensen at 4:31 PM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Deaf can mean a range of hearing loss. If you have a progressive loss, well, obviously it is changing over time. You can lose registers. My mother can't hear anything high-pitched, and in many conditions even with her hearing aid she cannot understand even English. (She's had a relatively slowly progressing loss for about 20 years now.) But she can hear most music just fine and can certainly hear singing. That's enough for the opera, where interpreting the singing of English as English is a challenge even for the non-disabled.

So, yes, "deaf" does not mean "cannot go to the opera".

ASL is fantastically expressive. It is different enough from English that even knowing only a few signs (and I've forgotten most I ever learned) it comes across as poetry or artistically interpretive. If I had any fluency I would probably prefer the sign language performance to the written captions.
posted by dhartung at 7:47 PM on October 15, 2009

Using the object of your sentence as the topic of the sentence is called "topicalization." In this example, "my car" becomes the subject instead of "me." The fact that "I washed it last week" becomes the comment.

An example of this language phenomenon that may be familiar to speakers of English occurs in New York English dialects, specifically those influenced by Yiddish. You see this in movies and TV a lot when the character is supposed to be from Jewish enclaves of the New York area. "A Cadillac he drives."[sentence pulled from this paper, which I haven't read, it was the first google result that looked relevant.] Like Mike Meyer's Coffee Talk character on SNL.

Just pointing this out to reinforce the fact that *SLs are totally different languages than spoken languages from the same countries, but as languages, they still follow structural rules and patterns that can be used to characterize other languages. Isn't that neat?

Disclaimer: Topicalization in linguistics is a controversial thing and many people will argue with this.
posted by jeb at 8:59 AM on October 16, 2009

Yeah, that's why linguists love them. They give us new toys to play with, but they still go by the same rules.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:09 AM on October 16, 2009

jeb, that’s not a good example. “As for fuel economy, it’s not like this is a Prius or something” is an example of topicalization. (You introduce the topic of fuel economy up front.)

So are the kinds of things you’d say in an argument: “Commitment? You don’t know the first thing about commitment.” (Two sentences; topicalization nonetheless.)

Japanese functions the same way: topic-wa comment. There’s even a distinction between topic and subject: “Fuel economy–wa Prius-ga not as good as, of course.”

I believe there is another MeFi linguist who wrote her paper on pragmatics. She may have something to add here.
posted by joeclark at 12:09 PM on October 17, 2009

Thanks for posting this. It's fascinating. I have read a bunch of stuff about linguistics and I'm always intrigued to hear more.
posted by juicykarkass at 8:46 PM on October 17, 2009

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